A number of years ago, the Brazilian writer-director João Moreira Salles discovered amateur footage of a 1966 group tour his mother filmed in China during the inception of the most radical phase of the Cultural Revolution.
As Salles describes his mother in the narration for his documentary “In the Intense Now,” she was a “dilettante in search of the beauty of the country.” That she, a 37-year-old art historian, found beauty at this particular time in China testifies to her ability to perceive what was enchanting in the landscape and the faces of the people. But Salles also disparages, albeit gently, her blindness to the orchestrated Communist propaganda set out before her.
Salles intercuts his mother’s movies with archival footage from three other radical movements of that era, all from 1968: The May uprisings in France, when students and striking workers, raging against the Gaullist regime, demonstrated in the streets; the brutal ending of the Prague Spring, in which Soviet-led forces clamped down on Czech resistance; and, using up far less screen time, the brief rebellion in Brazil against the reigning military dictatorship.
It takes a while to get into the ruminative rhythm of this film. But it’s worth it. Salles moves unceremoniously between the events, giving over much of the total screen time to the French section, but he does so in a way that is closer to a film essay than a standard documentary. He’s in good company with this approach: Some of the greatest documentarians, including French filmmakers Jean Rouch and especially Chris Marker, worked in this way, and their example obviously functions as a beacon for Salles. Although “In the Intense Now” consists entirely of archival material, with the director present only as a voice-over on the soundtrack, the effect is deeply personal. Salles is interested not only in the brief efflorescence of radicalism and rebellion in those years. He’s also caught up by what came after: the sense of loss that results from hopes shattered.
Salles is a curious combination: He’s a hard-nosed sentimentalist. In the French section in particular, which features, among much else, students at the barricades being tear-gassed by the police, Salles defends the belief that, for many of these young people, this would forever be the time when they felt most alive. True, he does condemn, at least glancingly, the actions of student leaders like Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who, according to the film, had a wayward history of rallying street insurrections he often skipped out on. And Salles includes footage of striking proletarian workers looking askance at the mostly bourgeois students who proclaim a new world order in which there will be no bosses, to which the workers cynically reply that the students will be their “future bosses.”
But it’s difficult to get all misty-eyed about students whose shining hour was lit, however blindly, by the depredations of Maoist and Soviet Communism. Since Salles paints such a devastating picture of the Soviet tanks rolling into Prague, it’s more than a bit confusing that he doesn’t more acutely recognize the error of his ways in showcasing the parallel insurrections of France and Czechoslovakia as if they were on the same human rights plane.
Despite befuddlements such as these, Salles fills his movie with sequences that do justice to his film’s title. A great present-tense immediacy prevails in much of what he shows us. In a heartbreaking extended sequence, a striking worker, a French woman who had grievously protested the horrible safety conditions in her factory, is casually brushed off by patriarchal union reps and told to suck it up and return to work. (Salles makes the trenchant point, using photographic evidence, that women and people of color were heavily marginalized by the student “resistance.”)
Salles also is smart enough to recognize how political rebellion can quickly become commodified. Cohn-Bendit, for example, short on cash, agrees to an all-expenses-paid assignment from the mainstream Paris Match magazine to cover his travels in Germany (where his family originated before fleeing Hitler and where he lived as a teen). And then there is Salles’s revelation that the student rebels’ big slogan – “Underneath the paving-stones, the beach” – was actually cooked up by an advertising agency. I guess this shouldn’t be much of a revelation after all.
In the end, the political confusions of Salles’s movie, which seem all of a piece with the political confusions of that era, sit small beside its achievement as a document of an incendiary time when hope, along with the stench of tear gas and gunfire, was in the air. Grade: B+ (This movie is not rated.)